Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

RICHARD SAKER/REX
Show Hide image

Electric dreams

How the “hippie tycoon” Dale Vince – a pioneer of renewable energy – plans to turn football and our motorways green.

In the hills above the tiny Cotswolds town of Nailsworth, on a road named Another Way, is an unusual football stadium. As you enter the New Lawn ground, the first thing you see is a pair of Nissan Leaf electric cars plugged into charging stations; on the reception counter are flyers for the Vegan Society. This is the world’s only meat-and-dairy-free football club, where players and fans enjoy Quorn fajitas, veggie burgers, cheeseless pizza and tea with soya milk.

Look out from the main terrace at the Forest Green Rovers club and you’ll see more curious sights. An array of 170 solar panels is positioned atop the south stand. Behind a corner flag is a large tank for storing water that has been recycled from beneath the organic pitch, which is fertilised with seaweed. Even the advertising banners stand out: the most prominent bears the white skull-and-crossbones logo of Sea Shepherd, the marine conservation charity.

It might all seem quaint and worthy, the vanity project of a hippie tycoon. But Forest Green Rovers are a serious club. The team of full-time professionals sits in the playoff places near the top of the National League, the fifth tier of English football. If they keep that up, they stand a good chance of winning promotion to League Two, for the first time in the club’s 127-year history. But the longer-term goal is to make it all the way to the Championship, just a step from the
Premier League.

That is why Forest Green Rovers are moving ahead with plans for an extraordinary new stadium near Stroud, in Gloucestershire. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the firm that built the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, it will seat 5,000 people, with a capacity to expand to twice that. And it will be constructed almost entirely of wood. “That’s never been done before, anywhere,” said Dale Vince, who rescued the club from near bankruptcy in 2010 and is now its chairman. “It will be the greenest stadium in the world.”

We met in early November at the Stroud headquarters of Ecotricity, the renewable energy firm he founded in 1995, which runs 19 windfarms and two solar parks. Vince, who is 55, is not your typical corporate boss. He was wearing brown boots, ripped jeans and a black T-shirt. His hair is shaved on the sides, with a small ponytail on top, and his sideburns are long. A silver ring hangs from the tragus of his left ear.

Vince’s office is scantily furnished with two beanbags, a standing desk, a small, round table in the middle and a large, green Union Jack on the wall. If you didn’t read the newspapers, which drew attention to his wealth last summer while covering a legal battle with his ex-wife, you would have no idea he was worth more than £100m.

It is a fortune that has allowed him to spread his green dreams into areas beyond football. Before the 2015 general election, Vince gave £250,000 to Labour, £50,000 to the Liberal Democrats and £20,000 to the campaign of the Green MP, Caroline Lucas. But he may yet make the biggest difference with transport. Ecotricity has built what it calls the Electric Highway, a network of 296 charging points at motorway service stations which has made it possible to drive from Land’s End to John o’Groats in an electric car. Vince says he is trying to accelerate the demise of the internal combustion engine. “Our government is not the most ambitious on green issues but by 2030 it wants all new cars to be electric or hybrids. We think it could happen sooner.”

 

 

***

 

Vince grew up in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in a two-bedroomed ­bungalow. His father was a self-employed lorry driver who worked hard yet worried about being able to pay the bills. “That’s why I decided to drop out and live like a hippie,” Vince wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2009. “I didn’t want a career or a mortgage.”

He left his local grammar school at 15 and four years later became a New Age traveller: his first home was an old ambulance. He toured Britain and Europe, and along the way he got married, painted, learned to bake bread – and had run-ins with the police. He was part of the Peace Convoy, a confederation of anti-authoritarian travellers, and in summer 1985 he took part in the “Battle of the Beanfield”, when police trying to prevent a free festival at Stonehenge clashed with protesters. Some travellers were beaten and vehicles were smashed.

Vince, a tinkerer, built a small windmill on top of his van to power the lights. In the early 1990s, while living on a hill in Gloucestershire in a former army truck, he had an epiphany: what if he could harness the wind on a much bigger scale and change the energy industry? He decided to “drop back in” to society to set up Ecotricity, which claims to be the world’s first green energy firm. The model was simple: the company would produce as much renewable electricity as it could, buy in any extra fossil-fuelled power it needed, and use customer revenues to construct more windfarms until the operation was fully green.

“I built my first windmill in ’96, after a five-year battle with all-comers – Nimbys, bigots, planners, big power companies, you name it – and went to Kyoto in ’97,” Vince wrote on his blog, Zero Carbonista. “The rest is just more history.”

That windmill is still turning: its blades can be seen from the top of a stand at the New Lawn. And like the football club, which has doubled its home attendance in six years, Ecotricity is thriving. It has nearly 200,000 customers. Accounts filed at Companies House show turnover for the year ending April 2016 of £126m, up from £109m; pre-tax profit was £6.7m. Vince is the sole shareholder but the company does not pay dividends and he draws a salary of less than £150,000. The converted 18th-century fort where he lives with his second wife and their son is worth more than £2m, but he says he is not motivated by money.

Despite Ecotricity’s success, the firm faces several challenges, including the implications of Brexit, which Vince opposed. “We have not left [the EU] yet, but the pound has slumped and banks are thinking of leaving,” he said. “The process of leaving will be tortuous, and the idea that we can trade better outside the EU – that’s nonsense.”

A more immediate problem for Ecotricity is regulatory. The last Labour government introduced attractive incentives for companies and homeowners to produce renewable energy, especially wind and solar power. These subsidies amounted to billions of pounds – since 2002 Ecotricity has received £36m towards building windmills costing over £100m – and have helped make Britain a world leader in green power. In 2011, 9 per cent of Britain’s electricity came from wind, sun and other renewable sources; in 2015 the figure was 25 per cent.

But since the Conservatives won a majority under David Cameron in 2015, breaking free from the restraints of their coalition partners, the eco-friendly Lib Dems, the government has made it harder for green projects to secure planning permission. It has also reduced financial support for the industry. In December 2015, days after helping seal the Paris climate-change accord, which called on all countries to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, the government announced a series of cuts to subsidies for renewables, which are paid for through business and household energy bills.

“They [the Tories] have smashed renewable energy with a sledgehammer,” Vince said. “And they’ve done it in a deceitful way, saying it was for the good of the industry. They’ve practically shut down solar and onshore wind in the UK. Bringing forward new stuff now – I don’t see it happening.”

At the same time, the government is promoting fracking, a controversial process that involves blasting water and chemicals into rocks to release trapped gas. Fracking has been suspended or banned in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and Wales because of environmental concerns. Official surveys show that fewer than one in five Britons supports fracking, yet in October the government overruled councillors in Lancashire and approved plans to explore for shale gas there. “[Fracking] is a big risk to take for a gas that we cannot afford to burn if Britain is to hit its carbon-reduction targets,” Vince said.

His proposed alternative is to produce “green” gas from grass grown on marginal farmland. Ecotricity will build its first grass-to-gas mill in Hampshire next year, and Vince says that in theory the green fuel could be used to heat almost all homes in Britain within two decades. His vision is unlikely to get much support from Theresa May, who, after taking office in July, abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change and transferred its functions to an enlarged department responsible for business. “It’s ideological when it comes to green stuff,” Vince said. “The left embraces it and the right does not.”

That is why, in February 2015, he donated funds to Labour, the first time he had done so. What does he think now, with Labour trailing so far behind the Tories in the polls? “Jeremy [Corbyn] is a lovely man. He believes that he can lead the party to a general election victory. But if I were him I might be inclined to stand aside. The party seems so riven, and that is a real problem. The Tories are having a free-for-all.”

He believes that Tony Blair has a role to play in restoring the fortunes of the left. “I am against Trident and nuclear energy, and for social justice. But I’m also a practical person. What Tony Blair did with Iraq was disgraceful. But there was more that was right. I think Blair did a fantastic job, and rumours of his return excite me.”

Ask Vince what he would do if he were Energy Secretary and he reels off a list: ban fracking; rip up the Hinkley Point C nuclear power contract; spend “a billion dollars” on promoting energy efficiency; tax polluting power companies; perhaps renationalise the energy industry, from producers to suppliers. He would also give green vehicles a big stimulus, as has happened in Norway with marked results. Thanks to tax breaks and incentives – exemption from VAT and public parking fees, freedom to use bus lanes – plug-in cars now account for over a quarter of new car sales in Norway. “It’s economic signals that change behaviour,” Vince says.

 

***

 

As a boy, Vince was astonished at how many cars there were on the road. Surely the fuel they were burning couldn’t last for ever, he remembers thinking. But the oil companies kept discovering reserves, so there was no incentive for manufacturers to develop green cars. In 2008, when there were fewer than 2,000 electric vehicles on the road across 40 of the world’s most developed countries – and barely any at all in the UK – Vince and his engineers decided to take the initiative.

“I’m a bit of a petrolhead and also a tree-hugger, which is a dilemma. I could not get an electric car at that time, so we bought the shell of a Lotus Exige on eBay and turned it into a supercar,” he told me.

The Nemesis, as it was called, broke the British land speed record for an electric car in 2012, clocking 151.6 miles per hour. By then, however, Vince had realised that building cars was a different proposition from generating energy. Instead, he had started rolling out the infrastructure that he hoped would hasten the take-up of electric vehicles.

“We wanted to break the chicken-and-egg scenario,” he said. Few people owned electric cars, so there were barely any motorway charging points in Britain, which in turn discouraged people from buying the vehicles. Ecotricity started with a three-pin-plug point at a service station in 2011. It took eight hours to charge a Nissan Leaf, a small, five-door family hatchback that at the time had a 73-mile range. “We knew it was not good enough, but that a massive increase in technological capacity was coming.”

Today, a Nissan Leaf, the world’s bestselling electric vehicle, can drive for 80 miles on a half-hour power-up at a service station, which isn’t a full charge. Most new electric cars can run for between 100 and 150 miles before they need to be plugged in. “Range anxiety”, which has been a deterrent for many potential buyers, is fading away. “In a few years’ time you’ll be able to drive 400 miles on a 15-minute charge,” Vince said.

The Electric Highway has encountered some bumps along the way. Early on, Ecotricity entered into an agreement with Tesla, the Californian electric car company run by the technology billionaire Elon Musk (who also plans to colonise Mars). But in 2014 Ecotricity claimed that Tesla had gone behind its back, negotiating with service stations with a view to installing its own chargers. Ecotricity sued Tesla, which then countersued; the companies reached an out-of-court settlement in June 2015. (Vince was involved in another settlement a few months later. His former wife, whom he divorced in 1992 when they had no assets, had claimed nearly £2m of his fortune, and was awarded £300,000.)

As with his early embrace of wind power, Vince’s bet on the Electric Highway looks a smart one. According to the International Energy Agency, there were 1.26 million either fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road at the end of 2015, more than three times as many as in 2013. The IEA forecasts that by 2040 there will be 150 million plug-in cars in service. With petrol consumption accounting for nearly 20 per cent of all oil consumed, that has huge implications for the petroleum industry – and the planet’s climate. In November, Shell announced that overall demand for oil could hit its peak in as little as five years.

Ecotricity had allowed drivers free use of its motorway plug-in stations since 2011, but in July it introduced tariffs for the first time. A half-hour charge now costs £6. The move angered some motorists; but Vince, who says the Electric Highway should cover its costs this year, is unapologetic. “We don’t have to make money in everything we do,” he said, referring to the football club and the car-charging network – but however altruistic his motives might be, he is also a businessman.

Green cars remain relatively expensive in the UK – the cheapest model in the Nissan Leaf range costs more than £20,000. But prices are falling and choice is growing, with more than 40 electric or hybrid models on sale in the country.

“The stumbling block was the range of the cars and the cost. What’s happening is one is going up and the other is going down,” Vince said. “The technology is on the cusp of mass appeal. You will see the government jump in before long and claim credit for that.”

As for Vince, he doesn’t even own a car. On a beanbag at the office in Stroud are the helmet and jacket he uses when riding in to work on his KTM motorcycle. And yes, it’s electric.

Xan Rice is the features editor of the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain